The Countdown

The 30 best albums of 2023, from Olivia Rodrigo to Lana Del Rey

Amid the chaos and confusion of the past 12 months, critics Mark Beaumont, Helen Brown, Annabel Nugent and Roisin O’Connor found plenty of comfort and solace in the year’s musical offerings

Friday 15 December 2023 10:36 GMT
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The biggest music moments of the year were all about maximalism. Whether embodied by the shocking pink of the Barbie soundtrack or the glittering costumes of Taylor Swift’s record-breaking Eras tour, pop went big in 2023.

It’s interesting, then, that so many of The Independent’s favourite albums over the past 12 months have been quieter affairs. Our writers fell for insular, pastoral folk from Flyte, Billie Marten and boygenius, the moony ballads of Lana Del Rey and Mitski, and the eerie Irish folk-rock of Lankum and Grian Chatten.

Of course, we loved the louder moments, too, immersing ourselves in the bonkers world of Psychedelic Porn Crumpets and the sexually liberated, full-throttle thrills of Janelle Monae. From ambitious orchestral works to voodoo funk and acid folk, here are our favourite albums of 2023.

30. Kesha – Gag Order

“This is where you f***ers pushed me/ Don’t be surprised if s*** gets ugly,” warns Kesha on her fifth album, Gag Order. Her rage comes after she lost a 2016 court battle seeking to be released from a contract to producer Dr Luke, whom she claims “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused” her over a decade. Produced here by Rick Rubin, the singer’s trauma squirms through a snakes’ nest of trippy, experimental electronica alive with slippery ear-worm hooks. Helen Brown

29. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets – Fronzoli

AI has taken over, man is bound for Mars and our species’ last hopes lie in the hands of a character named Captain Gravity Mouse. Welcome to the demented world of Psychedelic Porn Crumpets’ sixth album Fronzoli, the latest scrambled dispatch from the Australian psych-pop scene where Detroit garage, math punk, acid folk and sumptuous melodic psychedelia are loaded into the Large Hadron Collider and blasted into each other at intergalactic velocities. Observers will discover previously theoretical particles of Pixies, MC5, Arctic Monkeys, Pond, Tame Impala and The Beatles in the resulting fusion, and declare Fronzoli another big bang of modern psych. Mark Beaumont

28. Roisin Murphy – Hit Parade

When she turned 50 this year, Murphy found herself “amenable to some playful silliness” and made the most danceable record of her career. Her freewheeling emotions – running the gamut from joy to sorrow, spitting rage to shrugged acceptance – are set to richly textured Balearic backdrops crafted by Germany’s DJ Koze. There are funk guitars, electronic bleeps and wallops of golden brass. Murphy makes the most of her voice: it growls, purrs, swoops, and soars. She finds her inner dove on the romantic “CooCool” and repeatedly snarls “f***’s sake” in response to the various frustrations of “The House”. What fun! HB

27. Thomas Bangaltar – Mythologies

Having shed his Daft Punk helmet after the French electronic duo disbanded in 2021, Thomas Bangalter swapped synths for a symphony on his first full-length project in 20 years. Mythologies, an orchestral score composed for Angelin Preljocaj’s ballet of the same name, is an extraordinary and ambitious work that reveals the beating heart behind that robot mask. “Les Amazones” bursts with life; a flurry of violins like a thousand wings beating all at once and a cello full of character. “Le Minotaure” lowers its head in a menacing grumble of bass and snarling strings, as suspenseful as the Jaws theme. A work of Odyssean proportions, pulled off with panache. Roisin O’Connor

26. Mitski – The Land is Inhospitable And So Are We

Loaded with pedal steel, fiddle, chirruping cicadas, howling dogs, and Tex-Mex trumpet, is The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We – an album, which finds the woman widely hailed as “America’s best young songwriter” sounding like Nancy Sinatra’s vengeful ghost, as she mines a rich, dark seam of swooning Americana. The songs all feel like boozy, nocturnal confessions: “As I got older I learned I’m a drinker,” Mitski croons, “Sometimes a drink feels like family.” Later, she tries and fails to sell her soul to the devil at midnight. HB

Top 10 Best Songs of 2023

25. The Rural Alberta Advantage – The Rise & Fall

Since Neutral Milk Hotel entered the wilderness, Toronto’s The Rural Alberta Advantage have been upholding the demented fuzz-folk mantle, albeit infused with the misty enormity of the Canadian landscape. This fifth album, The Rise & Fall, perfects their magical concoction of frantic pace, powerful folk rock songcraft, clattering noise and haunting melody, now embellished with modern synthetic touches and a fresh grandeur in the likes of “Real Life” and “10ft Tall”, a towering tune, caught mid-demolition. MB

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24. Everything But the Girl – FUSE

On their first album in 24 years, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt make a church of their mature electronica. Songs are structured around vaulting arcs of yearning melody, shining with stained glass synths. They explore the modern challenges of “microaggressions and human transgressions”, and remind us to forgive ourselves our trespasses. The melancholy is balanced by wit and bouncy beats on tracks like “No-One Knows We’re Dancing”, about a guy driving a Fiat Cinquecento and dryly recording the lifestyle of an EU lawyer. “He does London, Paris, Munich” sings Thorn, like a sarky Sade. HB

23. The Kills – God Games

Bones rattle, hip-hop horns blast, Alison Mosshart croons like a sci-fi Siouxsie Sioux and a hex is cast on LA. If these are God’s games, the devil is the referee. Having been evolving their garage rock exotica for two decades, The Kills are virtually uncategorisable on their sixth album, God Games, where corroded dub, voodoo funk, insidious gospel, junk shop pop and even a bit of flamenco calypso (added to “Better Days” by Beck) make exhilarating experimental backdrops for Mosshart and Jamie Hince’s soulful musings on religion, tabloid infamy and lockdown paranoia. Indie rock 2.0. MB

22. The Japanese House – In the End it Always Does

Backed by soft sprinkles of guitar and splooshy dollops of synth, Amber Bain’s second album as The Japanese House is a deliciously, delicately jazzy affair. While her 2019 debut tracked the arc of one love affair, this time around, she offers more scattered, diaristic thoughts on a variety of relationships, including exploring the power dynamics of her experience in a throuple. On “Sunshine Baby”, she compares love to “the feeling when the windscreen wipers line up with a song”. HB

21. The New Pornographers – Continue as a Guest

We all did crazy things during the pandemic – Zoom drinking, hash banana bread, testing our eyesight by driving 30 miles to popular beauty spots. But did you, like The New Pornographers’ Carl “A.C.” Newman, listen to all of your previous records backwards to find melodies for your next album? Worth considering: the ninth record from this Canadian indie supergroup Continue as Guest, is a career high, with Newman’s impeccable alt-pop songwriting taking on an angular and atmospheric edge on crackers such as “Really Really Light” and “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies”. MB

20. Avelino – God Save the Streets

Avelino

In a relatively quiet year for British rap, north London’s Avelino came through with his long-awaited debut, God Save the Streets. Inspired in part by the Sex Pistols album, God Save the Queen, it sees the rapper cruising through his hometown, all the while ruminating on fame, success, loyalty, doubt, and self-worth. Years in the making, the record features collaborations with grime veterans Ghetts and Wretch 32 (the latter serving as executive producer) on sizzling tracks like “Vex” and the more mellow, hip-hop tones of “Sin City”. His masterstroke, though, is album closer “Acceptance”, on which Avelino delivers sharp wordplay and hard-hitting truths over stuttery trap beats and stark piano notes. It’s an accomplished, confident statement from a musician not afraid to get vulnerable. ROC

19. Blur – The Ballad Of Darren

Taking stylistic notes from John Cale, Radiohead, later Bowie and Arctic Monkeys, Blur’s belated ninth record, The Ballad of Darren, was their most suave and immersive yet. Sure, “St Charles Square” threw back to the pop-literate grunge of their self-titled 1997 album, but the rest was all sprawling elegance brushed with cosmic strings and romantic desolation. Mournful bontempi slow-dance “The Ballad” set the tone, the adorable “Barbaric” rose it and “The Narcissist” summarised everything fabulous about this lush, subtly matured version of the band that epitomised and then transcended Britpop. MB

18. Flyte – Flyte

The insular, romantic themes of Flyte’s third, self-titled album were in stark contrast to its predecessor. This is Really Going to Hurt was raw from betrayal, wallowing in the dregs of a long-term relationship. Now, frontman Will Taylor basks in the glow of new love, on songs written in the same room as his partner and fellow musician, Billie Marten. The band’s pastoral folk conjures up images of flickering fires, low-slung beams and rain-dappled window panes. Undoubtedly the cosiest and most comforting album this year. ROC

17. PJ Harvey – I Inside the Old Year Dying

It’s Wicker Man vibes here, as Polly Harvey digs deep into the mud and murk of her rural childhood on a folk-grunge record that tracks the turning of the seasons. The lyrics are musical reimaginings of the narrative poems from Harvey’s 2022 collection Orlam. Written in 19th-century Dorset dialect, they tell of soldiers appearing through the “drisk” (mist), strange “horny devils and goaty gods” as well as “femboys in the forest”. A mucky, pagan whirl. HB

16. Stornoway – Dig The Mountain!

One of Britain’s greatest folk bands, Stornoway, reformed in 2022 after a six-year hiatus. Their wondrous fourth album, Dig the Mountain!, honours their pastoral roots – the stirring “Excelsior” literally eulogises a felled ancient tree, Sycamore Gap-style – and oceanic obsessions while also exploring proggy funk, ambience, afrobeat and earthy industrial grooves. Man’s debts and connections to nature are a lingering theme, enhanced with idyllic musings on rural fatherhood and upbringing on superlative piano ballad “Kicking the Stone” and “Anwen”, a song that perfectly captures the heart-in-mouth joys of watching your five-year-old smash up your kitchen while practicing ballet. MB

15. Olivia Rodrigo – Guts

Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Guts’ artwork

There are few albums from this year that are as fun to listen to as Olivia Rodrigo’s second outing. A knuckle-punch of a record, Guts doubles down on the spiky, snarky pop-punk that first catapulted the Disney alum to fame in 2021. Guitar lines snarl and snag, while lyrics take aim at ex lovers, societal confines, bad friends – and crucially, herself. Rodrigo has a knack for embodying teenage life in all its messy contradictions. Even on excellent ballads such as “Vampire” and “Lacy”, Rodrigo keeps her foot on the pedal. The momentum is exaltant, noisily pushing its way to the top of the charts. Annabel Nugent

14. Grian Chatten – Chaos For The Fly

Holed up for a fortnight with Fontaines DC producer Dan Carey, frontman Grian Chatten largely eschewed the post-punk guitar maelstrom of his day band in favour of hazy Gallic textures, folk clatter, grainy retro orchestration and electronic burbles on a sophisticated solo debut indebted as much to Glen Campbell, Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen as the current crop of maudlin minimalists. Chatten’s charmingly languorous, yet occasionally biting poetry of love and lust, addiction and isolation shines on songs that don’t so much confront as have an affectionate catch-up with his demons. MB

13. SZA – SOS

“I’m too profound to go back and forth/ With no average dork,” warns Solána Imani Rowe on her second album, SOS. There’s a wonderfully fluid tide to the former biology student’s intimate interior monologues. Even as it opens on gunfire and explodes into wonky soul, it makes for an immersive experience. Songs are buoyed on waves of rolling percussion, flooded with watery synths and swilling with dark thoughts. On “Kill Bill”, SZA mulls over the wisdom of murdering her ex, concluding she’d “rather be in jail than alone”. (We’re including this album as – released last December – it came out too late in 2022 to make that year’s Best Of lists.) HB

12. Margo Price – Strays

Margo Price

Margo Price’s career-best fourth album was written after a six-day magic mushroom trip with her husband and collaborator, Jeremy Ivey – which does well to explain the paranoia on psych-rock joyride “Been to the Mountain”, as she hisses: “Do you ever walk down the street and do you think to yourself, ‘Am I being watched, man? Am I on the list?’” Price is magnificent and free-wheeling, full of confidence as she darts from sprawling western epic “Hell in the Heartland” to the contemptuous “Change of Heart”. Her voice, too, is the best it’s ever been, vacillating between Stevie Nicks’ most dangerous croon to a Patti Smith swagger. The stories she tells aren’t always her own, but boy she tells them well. ROC

11. Peter Gabriel – i/o

Twenty-eight years in the making, and released 21 years after its intended sister-piece Up, Gabriel’s 10th album of original material sounds remarkably unlaboured and contemporary. The rich art rock of “Panopticom”, “Four Kinds of Horses”, “Olive Tree” and “The Court” tackle issues of religious terrorism, virtual worlds, online judgements and the people-power possibilities of AI. Aging and mortality have inevitably crept in during its three-decade gestation, with “And Still” a tribute to Gabriel’s departed mother and stunning piano lament “Playing for Time” making poignant deals with the reaper. But there is still plenty of arena pop life in the title track and “Road to Joy”, the latter basically “Sledgehammer” coming round from a coma, still horny. MB

10. Raye My 21st Century Blues

Raye

The year’s most exhilarating debut finds Rachel Keen marrying the swooning drama of classic jazz and soul to post-millennial beats and punchy vernacular. You can hear the debt she owes to the late Amy Winehouse in the brassy swagger of “The Thrill is Gone” and the messy confession of “Escapism”. But, recording in a post-MeToo era, Keen is able to more directly address the issues that Winehouse felt she had to suppress. She tackles date rape and body dysmorphia alongside abuse and exploitation in the music industry: “All the white men CEOs, f*** your privilege/ Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth.” HB

9. Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy

Drawing from – and wonderfully roughing up – the spiritual tradition, Edinburgh’s Young Fathers constructed a compulsive fourth album that feels as though you’re dancing on burning pews, a Pentecostal party as the hellfire finally rises. “Drum” and “Rice” were fervent swamp soul sermons, “Shoot Me Down” a surge of celestial gospel, and “Tell Somebody” a slo-mo shower of shattering stained glass. Exploring euphoric new extremes of sound and energy, Heavy Heavy roared by as if challenging the rest of 2023 to keep up with it. MB

8. Lana Del Rey – Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

Lana Del Rey returned this year with her ninth album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, in which questions of family and legacy, memory and death were swirled around a martini glass of swooning balladry. Album highlight “Margaret” is a pure paean to love (I’d argue, one of the most romantic songs of the year) while the folky reverie of  “A&W” takes a left-turn at the four-minute mark to give way to a sleazy, synthy bassline. Here, Del Rey whispers a few of her most secret yearnings into this record of hushed experimentalism. AN

7. Caroline Polachek – Desire I Want to Turn Into You

Caroline Polachek makes music that perfectly treads the fine-line hyphen of her avant-pop genre. The songs on her seventh album (though, only the second under her name) are at once delectable pop earworms and masterclasses in experimentation. A maximalist outing, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You runs the gamut of sonic influences, dipping into Mediterranean guitar licks and tropical bass lines. Across it all are Polachek’s operatic vocals, which can break into the sort of cascading melisma you rarely hear these days. AN

6. Corinne Bailey Rae – Black Rainbows

Corinne Bailey Rae

Marketed for too long as an easy-breezy pop-soul singer, Bailey Rae proves what a sophisticated artist she is on this eclectic exploration of the Black experience, too often “reduced to one narrative”. Here she breathes complex life into true stories she found in the archives of Black history at Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank. She uses rackety riot grrrrr punk to channel the attitude of mid century models on “”New York Transit Queen, psychedelic synths to soundtrack the Afro-futurism of “Earthlings”, and jazzy piano to tell the tale of a runaway slave on “Peach Velvet Sky”. HB

5. Billie Marten – Drop Cherries

Billie Marten

Billie Marten’s fourth record, a series of vignettes of a relationship, starts with a hum. A crystalline exhale that warbles across three minutes of softly strummed guitar and slowly swelling strings on album opener “New Idea”. It’s a reset button and an invitation to unfurrow your brow and drop your shoulders. To listen. By the time her vocals roll in on “God Above”, you’re already caught in the slipstream of Drop Cherries – which, it quickly transpires, is no bad thing. AN

4. Sufjan Stevens – Javelin

As with 2015’s celebrated Carrie & Lowell, grief returned Sufjan Stevens to the enveloping, intimate, beautifully broken tones of early works like Michigan and Seven Swans. Dedicating his 10th album, Javelin, to his late partner Evans Richardson – who died in April – brought acute poignancy to “Genuflecting Ghost”, “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” and the explosive anguish of “Goodbye Evergreen”. The industrial clanks and sizzles he utilised on experimental albums such as 2020’s The Ascension, are at times respectfully danceable, but the heart of Javelin is in its muted pianos, its caressed acoustic guitars and its soul-swelling, ghost dimension harmonies. MB

3. Janelle Monae – The Age of Pleasure

Janelle Monae

Janelle Monáe trades in her sci-fi fixations for a bit of carnal fun on the aptly named The Age of Pleasure. Her fourth album ushers in a new era for the polymath, replete with celestial horns and dancehall synths. Monáe is, no doubt, “on her champagne shit” here, with the help of collaborators Grace Jones, Sister Nancy, and Ghanaian-American rising star Amaarae. The album dovetails with Monáe’s personal evolution in recent years, which includes coming out as pansexual and identifying as an array of pronouns including “she/her”, “they/them” and “free-ass motherf***er”. The Age of Pleasure is a celebratory, liberatory bacchanal – and you’re invited. AN

2. Lankum – False Lankum

Earlier this year, Dublin folk four-piece Lankum were this* close to becoming the first Irish act to win the Mercury Prize. Judging by a recent interview, though, cosying up with major label executives at a swanky ceremony in London just isn’t their scene. More familiar are the wild, desolate landscapes of their sublime third album, False Lankum, where scorned lovers, grieving parents and superstitious sailors are their chosen companions. Singer Radie Peat is masterful on “Go Dig My Grave”, written from a family of “floating verse” songs, some of which date back to the 17th century, while Ian Lynch guides “The New York Trader” through a maelstrom of strings and hurdy-gurdy. Throughout the record, there’s a sense of discord and unease that makes the hairs on your arms stand up. ROC

1. Boygenius – The Record

“I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself,” sigh boygenius on their debut album, the record. In interviews, the indie supergroup comprising Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus said that writing songs together enabled them to be more “earnest” than in their solo material.

But this doesn’t mean that all of these 12 songs are straightforward. Most of them slot together with an appealing combination of simplicity and enigma – like those little puzzle cubes made of three types of wood.

While the vibe is one of female solidarity, they don’t shy away from the messy challenges of friendship. So the early line “speak to me until your history’s no mystery” is balanced later by the keenly expressed fear that “I might like you less now you know me so well”. The sonic textures shift between acoustic and electric, nodding back to their uniting love of the late-Nineties and early Noughties lo-fi of Elliott Smith and Iron & Wine. They’re swoony, soppy and sweary by turns. Leaving you feeling as though you’ve heard some hard truths in a safe space. HB

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